Cyberman: Rhodri Marsden

Call the internet police
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The Independent Online

If you're wealthy, bored and living in Germany, it's just conceivable that you might go looking for a new BMW on the internet. However, tap BMW into the Google Deutschland search engine and you'll find no links to bmw.de, the German car giant's main site. Google removed it from its database on Saturday after it caught the company using code on its web pages that, for example, might lead people searching for a "used car" towards a showroom full of gleaming BMW M6 Coupés.

Google may be spreading its wings wide with a host of new services, but it's still the most widely used search engine - and not just because it's fast, and free of extraneous stuff such as share prices and rainfall statistics. Complex and constantly developing algorithms rank web pages for relevance according to factors such as how widely they are linked to, and the position of certain keywords on the page. Google's pride in offering users relevant results has been rewarded: we talk about "Googling" rather than searching, and companies are desperate to climb up its search results pages to get products noticed - especially with traditional internet advertising so hard to target cost-effectively. Many businesses offer "search engine optimisation" services, which alter the code in web pages to con Google into thinking that a website is more relevant than it actually is. Google, of course, is always trying to stay one step ahead of the optimisers, with strict rules enforced by a "quality group". One employee, Matt Cutts, keeps a rather schoolmasterly blog on which he chastises corporations for abusing the system. BMW fell foul of Cutts by having pages on its site crammed with text related to cars, but which immediately redirected browsers to a page full of images instead - which would have scored far lower on Google's system. Cutts's attitude to this was withering, having already chastised another German site, automobile.de, days before for doing exactly the same thing.

"I have no patience for this," he said, bending his cyber-cane. Neither site seems to have gone away and done its homework, and at the time of writing neither site appears in Google's results.

It's a hard balance for Google to strike. On one hand, it needs to provide good search results, rather than the most cleverly optimised pages. But with the power that it wields, there's a danger of it turning into a burly internet policeman. For example, despite pornographers bestriding the internet, Google rewards a search for "sex" with a site containing advice on contraception for teenagers; rather sweet - but is it what the majority are actually searching for? Probably not. Similarly, for a legitimate car company to be wiped from the index could be seen as making Google a less useful tool. It's a lesson for webmasters that if you want Google's help, play by Google's slowly-changing rules. But until they all conform to those rules, your Google searches will be made through the piercing eyes of Mr Matt Cutts.

cyber@timewasting.net

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